Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

ISIS cells are planning their revenge says imprisoned Italian fighter

Mounsef Al Mkhayar says he wants to go home and claims militants are setting up sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria

Mounsef Al Mkhayar joined ISIS when he was 18 after running away to war-torn Syria with a friend. Reuters
Mounsef Al Mkhayar joined ISIS when he was 18 after running away to war-torn Syria with a friend. Reuters

An Italian man who joined ISIS said that although the militant group is poised to lose its last territory east of the Euphrates, it has long been planning for a new phase by smuggling out hundreds of men to set up sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria.

Mounsef Al Mkhayar, who is of Moroccan descent, told Reuters the terrorist group has vowed to "get revenge” for their current struggles.

The Italian is in a prison in north Syria, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), after abandoning ISIS two months ago as US-backed forces closed in.

Al Mkhayar was sentenced to eight years in jail by a Milan court in 2017 for spreading ISIS propaganda and trying to recruit Italians to the group.

Once an atheist with an affinity for rap music and a dream of moving to America, Al Mkhayar joined ISIS at 18.

He said he had spent most of his life in Milan with an aunt he calls his mother, before being placed in a home for troubled young people. He also spent a month in prison on drugs charges.

He began watching ISIS videos and speaking to recruiters online. It took him just a month to decide to go to Syria with a friend four years ago.

After military and religious training, Al Mkhayar fought on various fronts. His friend was killed on the battlefield.

As ISIS lost its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa, he left for Mayadin on the Euphrates river, then moved farther east across the desert, towards the Iraqi border.

After a string of defeats in eastern Syria, ISIS leaders were in disarray, killing off rival clerics and emirs, Al Mkhayar said.

He had then tried to quit the fight but had been imprisoned and then sent back to the front lines.

Al Mkhayar ended up in Baghouz, where he said the last fighters were split between wanting to give up or fight to the death.

He said his wife, a Syrian Kurdish woman from Kobani, who he married three years ago, convinced him to leave.

“‘That’s it’, we said, ‘we’re getting out.’ I saw my little daughter turning weak. I was scared my children would die,” he said.

Al Mkhayar said he could not sleep because of thinking about his wife and two daughters in a camp for displaced people in another part of north-east Syria. His wife is due to give birth in a month.

The Italian citizen said he still believed in the idea of a caliphate for Muslims, but accused ISIS leaders of governing their land like “a mafia”, seeking only to make money and breaking their own rules with impunity.

Commanders had stolen money and fled to Turkey, Iraq or western Europe, while ordering people to stay and defend Islam, he said.

The SDF, meanwhile, reportedly detained a former Irish soldier who joined ISIS. Irish police said they were “aware of an Irish woman who left Ireland three or four years ago having become radicalised. She was previously a member of the Irish Defence Forces”.

Irish news media named the woman as Lisa Smith, 37, from Dundalk.

She is said to have spent about a decade in the army before joining the Air Corps, where she reportedly served on government jets.

Irish media shared an image of her among the flight crew when Ireland’s prime minister at the time, Bertie Ahern, visited the US in April 2008.

The news of two more detainees comes as western governments grapple with what to do with their citizens who fled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS.

The UK government stripped teenager Shamima Begum of her British nationality in February after she gave an interview saying she wanted to return home, having fled to war-torn Syria with two school friends at the age of 15.

The SDF said that her newborn baby died last week in the displacement camp in northern Syria where she is being held, her third child to die since leaving the UK.

Updated: March 11, 2019 10:16 AM

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